The young woman certainly looked like she knew what she was doing.

Slim, longish brown hair, attractive, early 30s, she held the Glock 19 with a firm two-handed grip and addressed the target aggressively, her head tilted forward as she gained proper sight picture.

In fact, I was impressed - she had professional training somewhere in her background, and it was apparent.

Why then, couldn't she shoot a group worth beans? Her husband was trying to help, but without much success.

I stepped up beside her, and asked her to go ahead and shoot naturally - maybe I could figure out the problem. She went through a magazine of 9-millimeter ammo, and while reloading, I asked her a few questions.

"You have great form," I said. "Where did you get your training?"

"DEA," she replied, feeding her magazine. "I went through their basic course a couple of years back. Twice."

"Why twice?" I asked. "How come you never went on to be an agent?"

I knew she worked for a major insurance company as an investigator. She had told me she used to shoot a bit, but had not trained with a handgun in several years. Her husband was a regular shooter, and they decided to take the course and get their permits together.

I couldn't fathom working as an insurance investigator when government perks and services were available - and especially with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

"Blew my knee out in the basic course," she said, almost shrugging. "I waited a year, until I thought I was completely healed, and went back into the course, and couldn't do it. The knee was too much trouble. I just couldn't hack the P.T."

She went through another magazine, and I couldn't figure her problem - unless she was snatching the trigger or had a flinch I couldn't identify. But she didn't shoot like someone that would flinch from recoil.

I asked for her gun, and instantly discovered what was wrong.

"How long have you had the grip expander on there?" I asked.

"A good while," she said. "My husband put it on, but I've never practiced with it."

"I think," I said, "I've found your problem. This thing makes the grip so large you can't hold on to it during recoil. Let's take it off."

She agreed, but I couldn't get it off - they fit too tight, and don't just peel off. Most times armorers in police agencies just cut them when they need to get them off the grip.

"Got an idea," I said, turning back to the equipment bench, and opening the plastic case of the new Smith & Wesson Military & Police 9-millimeter semi-auto I had brought, just for this occasion.

Removing the brushed-finish black gun from the case, I dropped the magazine, and checked the chamber to be sure it was unloaded. I removed the unlocking pin on the back throat of the magazine well, allowing the large grips to slip off the frame. As she and her husband watched curiously, I reached into the case, and picked up the smaller of the two palmswell grips laying there. I slid it onto the backstrap, replacing the locking pin.

I slid the magazine firmly into the well, and racked the slide, locking it back. Then I handed it to her. She took the gun in her right hand, and stepped to the line. We loaded the magazine, and she took the gun into her shooting position. I instantly saw her eyes crinkle, and her mouth curve upwards in a huge smile.

"What is this?" she asked.

"That's a Smith & Wesson," I replied.

She leaned into the gun and the target, and where before her shots had trouble landing inside a 6-inch circle, she now tore a ragged 2-inch hole in the target.

With the smug look of a politician who has just solved the problem of world peace, I turned to see her husband beaming behind me.

"I think," I said, "we've just found her a new handgun."

When she turned, her face was aglow with the thrill of accomplishment and awe.

"Honey," she told him, "I really like this gun."

We loaded another magazine, and she proceeded to make more ragged holes. I finally got her away from the gun by promising she could come shoot the M&P more after the class.

Way back in 1899, Smith & Wesson revolutionized the handgun world by designing a new revolver and a new cartridge to go with it, the S&W .38 Military & Police revolver. The gun was originally designed to fire what was then designated the .38 U.S. Service Cartridge (also known as the .38 Long Colt).

There were a number of .38-caliber cartridges on the market at that time, none of which was particularly noted for devastating knock-down power. D.B. Wesson wanted a more powerful cartridge to fire from the new revolver with its innovative solid frame and hand ejector system. He suggested lengthening the cartridge case to increase the powder charge from 18 grains to 21.5 grains, and the bullet weight from 150 grains to 158.

Thus was born what would forever be known as the .38 S&W Special - shortly afterwards appended to simply the ".38 Special."

The M&P, designated the Model 10, exhibited sheer horsepower never before seen in a revolver, its 158-grain slug able to penetrate over 7 inches of solid pine.

The revolver took the law-enforcement world by storm, was issued to U.S. military troops and was solidly embraced to the collective bosoms of the American shooting public. Over six million units of the Model 10 have been produced since 1899. It is considered the most notable design ever to come from the factory, and the only handgun to remain continuously in production from 1899 to the present day.

Smith & Wesson has taken the dynamic, highly recognizable name of an old line of revolvers and expanded it. The new series of semi-automatic pistols to carry the appellation "Military & Police" is the result of input from more than a dozen professional law enforcement and military organizations.

Smith & Wesson engineers have taken their recommendations and completely redesigned the semi-automatic pistol to answer the needs of tactical units across the world.

The new series of pistols is rugged, dependable in any imaginable scenario, lightweight, high capacity and, as ridiculous as it might seem to a non-shooter, cosmetically attractive.

The 18-degree grip angle forces the web of the palm up exactly where it is supposed to be - firmly against the modified "beaver tail," which serves the purpose of making the correct grip natural, thus ending the possibility of "slide bite." The grip angle not only feels correct, it looks correct, making a pleasing profile to the eye.

The design innovations are collectively impressive. Like many lightweight pistols today, the frame is a molded polymer (Zytel) that gives strength without the weight of steel. This frame, however, has a proprietary stainless steel chassis inside the body that stiffens it. The frame carries the desirable underlug picatinny rail system for attaching a plethora of laser sights or compact high-intensity flashlights.

The slide is in a Black Melonite finish with a surface hardness of 68 HRc. Or, to us non-engineering types, the surface is hard enough to sharpen a steel blade. S&W engineers have also hardened the slide all the way through its width, rather than just a surface hardness.

There is an ambidextrous slide release, an easily reversible magazine catch to make the gun appealing to lefties, and the much-talked-about grip system.

The most noticeable feature of the new gun is the set of three interchangeable grips, easily switched as described by dropping the magazine and removing a single locking pin.

I first picked up one of these guns at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association conference in Decatur, Ala., in October. Smith & Wesson was there as always, with a full array of handguns and their new M&P line, including the new M&P Rifle. By all accounts, it is a winner, but I didn't shoot it. I was too busy burning rounds through a new M&P 9mm.

After I was done putting most of a magazine through one ragged hole at about 20 feet, the S&W rep standing next to me said, "Boy, I don't know if you like the gun, but the gun sure likes you!"

I liked the gun - a lot. When I picked it up, the smallest grip was on it. We moved up two steps, where I found the largest grip seemed most comfortable to me, and I proceeded to work the gun out.

The M&P, due to its grip design, has a natural pointing ability. When I bring the gun up quickly on target, it is pointing directly where I want it. It is akin to pointing one's finger, unlike some other tactical pistols that no matter how many times I have fired them, when I bring them up, I still have to adjust the angle to bring the sights into alignment with my eye.

Another innovative feature is the striker-fire design, which allows a faint bit of trigger creep, and then breaks crisply at slightly over 6 pounds. It has a passive trigger safety that keeps the gun from firing if dropped or struck and a magazine disconnect, which means the gun won't fire with the magazine removed, even if there is a round in the chamber.

Another feature I like is the unusual chamber-loaded indicator - a round hole that allows the view of a cartridge protruding from the rear of the chamber.

I received two guns from Smith & Wesson for testing purposes - a .40 S&W and the aforementioned 9mm. Each came in its own lockable hard-plastic case with two magazines, three sets of grips and an instruction booklet.

Over the course of a couple of classes, and two shooting sessions, we put the guns through their paces. Currently the pistols are offered in those two calibers and in .357 Sig. I have heard rumblings that a .45 is in the offing, and I think that is probably due to the fact that more and more special units in the U.S. military are requesting the larger caliber for combat use.

Dave Cohen, a police firearms instructor, helped me by pumping several different designs of .40 S&W ammo through the gun one afternoon. The gun digested everything we put in it, from hardball to different types of hollowpoints, all without a hiccup. There were no malfunctions with the gun whatsoever.

I put approximately 500 rounds of varying types of ammunition, both new and commercially reloaded, through the 9mm over several sessions. I purposely did not clean the gun to see what effect, if any, such mistreatment had on the functioning ability of the gun

Like the .40 S&W, the gun performed flawlessly, with never a stoppage, failure to feed or failure to eject.

Accuracy was everything you would expect from such a tight-fitting slide-to-frame marriage. At 25 feet, I put 17 out of 20 shots in a 1.5-inch ragged hole with a two-handed hold.

The new S&W M&P is now at your gun dealer. Get to one and ask to have the interchangeable grips demonstrated for you. And get them to show you how the gun is easily broken down without having to pull the trigger - it is an amazingly simple operation to disassemble and clean these guns.

Smith & Wesson has a winner here. Expect to see a lot of these medium-frame semi-autos showing up at the range where you shoot. And don't be surprised if compact models aren't far behind. As the popularity of the guns begin taking off (and they will), you can expect S&W to naturally follow with an expansion of the line to meet demand.

 
Gordon Hutchinson's best-selling novel, The Quest and the Quarry, a generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks with the youths of a farming family, can be ordered at www.thequestandthequarry.com or by calling (800) 538-4355.
The novel was recently chosen as a book of the year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.